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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The castrated ram that led us into war: Watchdogs, lapdogs, bellwethers, and the wrong disaster

by John MacBeath Watkins

I've just been writing about a buried lede in a New York Times story, and I think I buried the lede.

Well into the post titled When debt is sovereign and ledes are buried I wrote this, about the Times running a story about the disastrous day on the stock market instead of the remarkable fact that bonds had gone up instead of down following the Standard & Poor downgrade:

This is emblematic of  the press coverage of the entire debt debate -- don't worry about the substance of the matter, print something that perks up the hind brain. I understand the motivation, but it amounts to writing the "dog bites man" story when the evidence points to a much better, "man bites dog" story. But of course, the New York Times is a bellwether, not a watchdog. From Wikipedia: "The term is derived from the Middle English bellewether and refers to the practice of placing a bell around the neck of a castrated ram (a wether) leading his flock of sheep.[1][2] The movements of the flock could be noted by hearing the bell before the flock was in sight."

Aaaah. I've at last found a simile for the "castrated ram" that helped lead us into Iraq. But back to the matter at hand.
Yet to a great extent, the behavior of the American press is the matter at hand. Bloggers constantly complain that the common wisdom seems to be that to be taken seriously, you need to have been wrong about the right things at the right time -- to have believed the Iraq war was justified until we'd been there long enough to be very, very sure that Saddam Hussien didn't have the "weapons of mass destruction" that the Bush administration claimed they did, for example (and that phrase was itself intended to conflate the fears of nuclear weapons with far greater possibility we would find stores of poison gas, so that they could sell the war on the basis that "the smoking gun could be a mushroom cloud" and claim they were right if they found weapons based on World War I technology.)

If you got your views from the New York Times or most of the other high-profile news organizations, you would have believed this. Yet there was good journalism being done. If you read the coverage in the Knight Ridder newspaper chain, you had a pretty good idea how unlikely it was that Hussein had nuclear weapons. My own father was telling me that Hussein was "like Hitler with nuclear weapons," a line that was not original with him. In fact, in the runup to the war I began to feel like I was taking part in a performance of the play Rhinoceros.

Of course, that Hitler simile made George H.W. Bush into a sort of Neville Chamberlain. My reply to my father was the Hussein would have been like Hitler only if Hitler had been kicked out of the Sudatenland, had most of his military hardware destroyed, and had the French and British flying over his territory shooting down any military aircraft that took off, while using his remaining military force to cling to power over a restive population, parts of which were in armed revolt.

But the bellwether press was more interested in cultivating its high-level sources than in challenging their statements. In political science, there is a thing called agency capture, where the people in an agency become too close to the business they are supposed to regulate and fail to do their job. The result is that what is supposed to be a watchdog agency becomes a lapdog agency, often because the regulators know they will make more money if they are nice enough to those they regulate to get hired by them.

The Minerals Management Service is an example of agency capture, its inadequacies so clearly demonstrated by the Deepwater Horizon blowout that it was renamed, the assumption being that it could not regain its credibility simply by getting it to do a better job.

The New York Times showed a similarly disastrous lapse of oversight in its coverage of the weapons of mass destruction story. I don't think this was caused by the same thing as agency capture. Judith Miller wasn't looking for a job with the White House or Defense Department. She was neither corrupt nor incompetent, but fell into a different trap. She wanted access. After all, she still hasn't disclosed the source that provided her with NSA signals intelligence about Al Qaeda, and she was part of a team of writers that won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on Al Qaeda. She saw access as the key to her success as a journalist.

But the trap she fell into was to think that it was enough to tell people what her sources thought. When she was condemned for her coverage of the weapons of mass destruction controversy, she said (according to Wikipedia) "[M]y job isn't to assess the government's information and be an independent intelligence analyst myself. My job is to tell readers of the New York Times what the government thought about Iraq's arsenal."

Knight Ridder's reporters  took a different view. To quote Knight Ridder Washington Bureau Chief John Walcott, "It's an impulse, when you're told something, not simply to write it down and report it but to ask whether it's true. The whole truth. And that's an impulse that I think rightly covers everything everybody here does."

But this doesn't mean just challenging your sources, who might not like it and might not talk to you as much. It also means being skeptical of the conventional wisdom. It means challenging your readers' preconceptions. It means not being a bellwether. And a bellwether doesn't lead because it's smarter or braver, it leads because it is inclined to go where the flock wants to go.

It takes no courage to lead people where they want to go, and it doesn't require much in the way of brains. Quite a few of our politicians got unimpressive grades in college -- not just Dan Quayle and George W. Bush, but John Kerry and Al Gore as well. Brains aren't essential to getting elected, although they certainly can help with good policy choices. But brains are wasted on a bellwether, because being a bellwether is not about challenging the flock.

The Times was unwilling to do that on the weapons of mass destruction story, and it was unwilling to do that in the story about the consequences of the debt downgrade. People expected a disaster, so it gave them a disaster, even though it was the wrong disaster.

There are high rewards for such behavior. Fox News enjoys high ratings and is trusted by its viewers, even though much of what those viewers think they know is wrong. It has achieved this by telling them what they want to hear. The money is made by Fox. The cost is paid by the nation. Liberals like to think Fox (where Judith Miller now works) is alone in this. Sadly, it is not.


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